Exhibit explores past, present and future of the Black experience

‘Freequency,’ co-curated by Iyana Hill and April Sunami and on display at Urban Arts Space, features more than 20 artists whose work explores Afrofuturist themes.
A trio of paintings by Arris’ J. Cohen on display in "Freequency"
A trio of paintings by Arris’ J. Cohen on display in "Freequency"Iyana Hill

Artists and co-curators April Sunami and Iyana Hill acknowledged that Afrofuturism, as a concept, can be complicated to define.

“It’s hard to explain it without being in it or showing it,” said Hill, who joined Sunami for a mid-May interview at Urban Art Space, where “Freequency,” a new Afrofuturism-themed exhibit curated the by the two, kicks off with an opening on Saturday, May 25. “But, for me, Afrofuturism deals with the past, present and future in a very linear way, which allows Black people to really create different narrations and paths for themselves.”

As one example, Hill highlighted the form’s re-envisioning of so-called “Kool-Aid colors.” “And that’s coming directly from Kool-Aid, the drink, which you find in food deserts,” she said of the beverage, whose rainbow-hued offerings have been adapted and utilized in uplifting and/or socially charged works by a variety of Afrofuturist artists. “And those [food deserts] are historically in lower income, Black neighborhoods. So, it’s making a political commentary.”

The two also described Afrofuturism as an evolving concept, with Black creators reinterpreting and reclaiming the past and present with an eye on building toward a more empowered future. “What will it be for my kids and grandkids and great grandkids?” Sunami said. “And that’s what it’s about. It’s creating culture in this little pocket of the world to make sure all my kids – and not just my kids but … all the kids – have a future to look forward to. And that’s the work.”

Artist Arris’ J. Cohen, who has a trio of paintings on display in the exhibit, said in a January interview that his Afrofuturist studies have helped him to shift his perspective on Black history and then in turn himself, deeply impacting his work.

“I was really able to feel empowered, as opposed to just thinking of African Americans as former slaves,” he said. “I got to learn more about who we were before we were brought over here, and about the diaspora and the spreading out of people of African descent around the world. … Seeing people that look like me in history, there’s a thing called Sankofa, where you’re looking at the past, but also thinking about the present and the future. And the more I learn, the more that influences what I do.”

“Freequency” features contributions from 22 artists, ranging from relative newcomers such as Cohen to established artists such as Marshall Shorts and pioneering elders including the late Pheoris West. The diverse exhibit also includes works by painters, photographers, sculptors and even a poet, Ajanaé Dawkins, who can be heard reciting her verses in a recording that plays in the hallway as visitors make their way to the gallery.

Sunami and Hill said ideas of ancestry and lineage and legacy surfaced repeatedly as they conceptualized the exhibit and connected with artists in the wake of last summer’s “Irrepressible Soul,” also staged at Urban Arts Space. And these bonds are reflected throughout the space, some purposely built in and others arriving as acts of providence. A painting by educator Pheoris West, for instance, is positioned on a wall directly across from artist and CCAD professor David Butler – an incidental placement that caught Sunami aback when she recognized it.

“David, he’s one of those professors who pours a lot into his students,” she said. “And the fact he’s here, and it’s like, Pheoris, David – two people who have just put so much of themselves into other people. I just love it.”

While Afrofuturism is a relatively recent term – scholar Mark Dery coined the word in the early 1990s – the concepts embodied within it have long been explored by Black artists.

“There are a lot of artists in the show whose work predates Afrofuturism,” Hill said. “And I don’t think most of them would be like, ‘I make Afrofuturist work.’”

“I agree,” Sunami added. “Outside of a few people like Arris’ who say they explicitly make Afrofuturist art. But those ideas are living and breathing in all of this work. And that’s something we thought about: Who is working along those lines already but maybe doesn’t even see themselves as Afrofuturist?”

“I think those ideas and that reimagining are just things that automatically happen as Black creators look at our lives,” Hill said. “[The art] is just an embodiment of our experience, and we’re putting it out there on these canvases.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News